HeroQuest and D&D – What About Magic?

This continues my series of posts about using the HeroQuest RPG to run a D&D-style campaign. Previous posts in this series can be found here:

In the course of this post, I’m mostly going to be referencing terms, spells, and items from the Pathfinder RPG. This is because the Pathfinder Adventure Paths are a great source of published adventures, and Pathfinder is extremely well-known by the younger generation of fantasy gamers. In general, though, I’m going to refer to this style of gaming as “D&D” just to make things easier.

(Furthermore, I can’t really speak to D&D 5E, as it’s the only edition of D&D that I haven’t bought, for reasons I’m not going to get into here.)

The Magic Conundrum

Magic is a major part of D&D. Some of the most iconic elements of D&D include magic: sleep, cure light wounds, +1 swords, staff of the magi, etc.

Magic in D&D is fully integrated with the class and level system, of course. The number of spells a wizard or cleric can cast each day is a function of level, and no other characters receive such blatantly powerful abilities in the course of the game.

In this post, I’m only going to talk about wizards (called magic-users or mages in earlier editions of D&D), as they are a) iconic and b) fairly complicated to emulate. I’ll cover clerics, magic items, and some other spellcasting classes in a future post.

D&D Wizards

The wizard is famous for being incredibly weak at early levels and assuming nearly god-like power at higher levels. These characters not only get more spells as they level up, but they get more powerful spells, and many of their early spells also get a power boost. This has led to the description of the class as a “quadratic wizard,” usually in reference to the fact that fighters get a linear progression of power, and wizards get more powerful on multiple axes.

The spells of a wizard can also be fairly complicated bits of rules in and of themselves. There are all kinds of parameters the player must keep in mind, such as casting time, range, duration, whether or not the spell grants a saving throw, how much damage it does (if any), and what special effects it may generate as part of the spell’s description.

And this is where the disconnect usually comes in for people trying to emulate magic using a simpler set of rules like HeroQuest. There is a tendency to try to recreate these bits of data in order to make it feel like D&D magic.

Further, spellcasting in D&D is “fire & forget.” When the magic-user casts the spell, he or she loses access to it. In earlier D&D, it meant the magic-user forgot the spell after it was cast. In later editions, the caster “prepared” rather than “memorized” spells, and casting the spell basically used up one instance of a preparation for that particular spell.

Regardless, the limit on spells per day has been an important part of D&D from the beginning. But it’s important to remember that the purpose of spells-per-day was a balancing mechanism. Even a 1st-level magic-user with a single sleep spell could decimate a dungeon if he or she was able to cast it over and over. The fighting characters would be unnecessary beyond the first round, and that only when the party lost the initiative roll.

So it was important for wizards to have a very limited ability to cast spells at early levels, and that gradually grew as they gained experience and leveled up. Other classes that didn’t cast spells would be expected to find magic items, which (in theory) would keep them balanced with those classes that had direct magic abilities.

But HeroQuest doesn’t work this way. In HQ, all abilities are essentially equal in capability (if not in scope). A fighter with a “fight with longsword” ability is just as useful in a contest as a magic-user with a “magic missile” ability. Now there are specific considerations that might affect that on a case-by-case basis—some creatures are resistant to magic, for example, and some can only be harmed by magic (spells or weapons), while a fighter with a sword is at a disadvantage fighting a creature that can fly where many spells can be cast at range.

But when you consider the reasons behind the way magic works in D&D, they don’t really hold water when using a set of rules like HeroQuest.

As I said last week, my goal is “emulation, not conversion.” A GM could come up with all kinds of mechanics in HQ that would take those specific bits of D&D and apply them to how HQ works. But, to me, that defeats the benefits of using a simpler and more flexible game like HQ in the first place.

There are few different ways one might emulate “Vancian” casting in HQ without adding a bunch of new rules.

Option 1:

The spells a wizard knows may be cast once and then are gone until he or rests for a specified amount of time. Usually this is a “per day” measurement. This means if a wizard knows disguise self, magic missile, protection from evil, read magic, shield, sleep and summon monster I, then he or she may cast each of those spells once. When the spell is cast, it is no longer available to the wizard until the rest/study period has been taken.

The benefit of this option is that it is simple, and it encourages wizards to be creative with their spell usage. The wizard can’t simple load up on magic missile spells and blast anything he or she encounters. It leads to—in my opinion—more interesting play. The downside, of course, is that it means the wizard is less flexible in his or her spell selection. If the same spell is expected to be useful in a couple of different situations that day, that’s too bad because the wizard gets one casting of the spell and that’s it.

Personally, this is my favourite option. I feel that it provides the general feel of Vancian casting, encourages creative spell use, and is extremely simple to manage in the game.

Option 2:

The number of spells a wizard can cast is determined as in Option 1. However, when a wizard casts a spell, the roll determines whether or not the spell is “lost” after the casting. In this case, you can tie the spell loss determination to just the character’s ability roll, or to the final outcome of the contest. Additionally, you can also make it easier or harder to retain cast spells by changing which outcomes cause loss and which allow retention.

For example, you could decide that a spellcaster who rolls a critical on the ability check in a contest doesn’t lose the spell when it is cast. It means that about 5% of the time, the spell is cast successfully and retained (and I would definitely count a critical that was caused by Mastery bumps or Hero Point expenditures). This means if a wizard absolutely wanted to cast a spell but retain it afterward, he or she could spend the required Hero Points to bump the roll to a critical and ensure the spell wasn’t lost.

Alternately, you could make it easier by deciding that any critical or success resulted in the spell being retained. This would mean the wizard would keep the spell more often than he or she would lose it. It would be a definite bump to the wizard’s abilities.

Or you might decide that the final result of the contest determined whether or not the spell was retained, rather than just the ability roll. For example, you could rule that any contest that resulted in a Major or Complete Victory would mean the spell was not lost after casting.

The advantage of this method is that wizards have a bit more of a tactical decision to make—whether or not to spend Hero Points to bump their roll to ensure a spell isn’t lost if it is expected to be needed later. However, it still keeps the whole process fairly simple and doesn’t add any additional rolls or other mechanics.

Option 3:

If you wanted to get more complicated, you could tie the number of spells cast per day to the ability rating. As the ability is improved and passes certain thresholds, the wizard is able to cast more (and potentially more powerful) spells. In this case, you would need to determine at the beginning of the campaign where these thresholds were and how many spells were granted at each point.

The advantage of this is that it is definitely more like D&D spellcasting. The disadvantage is that it is more complicated. Further, it goes against the core concept in HQ that the ability rating is not related to how skilled you are, but rather how good you are at using that ability to solve problems.

Obviously, the best option is the one that works well for the GM and the players, where everyone has fun and enjoys the game. A more complicated option might be better if the group is transitioning over to HQ from a very traditional D&D mindset and would find it easier to deal with a more intermediate step between those two approaches to a game. Alternately, the simplest option would be better for a group who prefers to leave almost everything up to the narrative and is more familiar with only rolling to find out the overall result of a conflict.

Spell Levels

Another point of difficulty arises when one considers that D&D is a level-based game, and that all spells have levels, indicating their relative power to each other. In D&D, a magic missile spell (a first-level spell) does significantly less damage than lightning bolt (a third-level spell). As the wizard gains levels, he or she gains the ability to cast higher-level spells, thus producing greater effects.

But in HQ, this is actually easier to deal with than one might think. In fact, it’s pretty easy to drop spell levels entirely without greatly affecting how the wizard plays. Greater power comes not from higher-level spells, but from the wizard’s ability to use the magic more effectively. A magic missile spell cast by a wizard with an ability rating of 17 is going to be less effective overall than that cast by a wizard with an ability rating of 10M3.

The main advantage of this method is that you need to include far fewer spells in the game, as lower-level spells don’t necessarily get replaced by greater versions at higher-levels. A spell such as magic missile, which provides a ranged, magical attack against a single target, automatically gets more effective as the wizard improved his or her ability rating, and doesn’t always need to be replaced.

Where the excitement from discovery of new spells comes in is that there are many different possible variations on the spells. For example, the wizard may know the magic missile spell, but then may discover a variant that makes it an area attack. Or that makes it also cause fires (basically becoming the fireball spell), or that generates electricity (becoming lightning bolt), or generates cold, or whatever. This means that when the wizard faces a red dragon, he’s going to whip out his cold-based magic missile (hopefully giving a penalty to the Resistance roll because he’s targeting an opponent’s weakness).

Furthermore, you could decide that a wizard must succeed at a Simple Contest to learn a spell from a scroll or captured spellbook in the first place. And more powerful spells might be more difficult for the wizard to learn. Like the method I proposed last week for dealing with the varying power levels of monsters by moving monsters down in categories as the base Resistance rises during a campaign, you could do something similar with the spells.

For example, using the Pathfinder SRD, you could categorize the spells for a beginning wizard as follows:

  • 1st-level spells: Low Resistance to learn
  • 2nd-level spells: High Resistance to learn
  • 3rd-level spells: Nearly Impossible Resistance to learn

Once the campaign gets underway, the GM simply bumps down each resistance at certain rough breakpoints. For example, when the PCs have played enough sessions that the Base Resistance has gone up by 6 points (e.g. after 13-14 sessions, the Base Resistance is 20), then the Resistance to learn spells all drop by two levels (e.g. 1st-level spells can be learned automatically, 2nd-level spells use Low Resistance, 3rd-level spells use High Resistance, and 4th-level spells use Nearly Impossible Resistance). The GM may allow a wizard who failed to learn a spell at a higher Resistance to try to learn the spell again. Alternately, the GM may rule that a wizard only gets one chance to learn a spell from a particular source, so there’s an incentive for the wizard to pile up some augments and perhaps spend Hero Points, or even just wait to learn a more powerful spell until his or her ability is higher.


So what about the spells themselves? Here’s an example of the text of a 1st-level spell in the Pathfinder SRE, the ubiquitous sleep spell.


School: Enchantment (compulsion) [mind-affecting]
Level: 1
Casting Time: 1 round
Components: V, S, M (fine sand, rose petals, or a live cricket)
Range: medium (100 ft. + 10 ft./level)
Area: One or more living creatures within a 10-foot radius
Duration: 1 minute/level
Saving Throw: Will negates
Spell Resistance: Yes

Description: A sleep spell causes a magical slumber to come upon 4 HD of creatures. Creatures with the fewest HD are affected first. Among creatures with equal HD, those who are closest to the spell’s point of origin are affected first. HD that are not sufficient to affect a creature are wasted. Sleeping creatures are helpless. Slapping or wounding awakens an affected creature, but normal noise does not. Awakening a creature is a standard action (an application of the aid another action). Sleep does not target unconscious creatures, constructs, or undead creatures.

In HQ, most of that information is irrelevant when considering how the nature of conflicts work. A wizard could use a sleep spell in a simple or extended contest, and all that matters is the rating of the ability and the narrative impact of the spell.

In the Glorantha version of wizardry, spells have nothing more than their names to explain what they do. When planning out a D&D-style game using HQ, I would suggest that the GM prepare a little bit more than that—a 1-sentence explanation of the spell, to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Sleep: This spell causes a small group of creatures to fall asleep.

That’s really all you need in HQ. Range, duration, casting time, and other elements are irrelevant. It does leave the spell up to some negotiation between the player and the GM (what is a “small group” of creatures?), but in the majority of cases this isn’t going to be an issue when considered in the context of a simple or extended contest.

For example, here’s how a typical encounter would likely play out with this spell:

GM: There are a half-dozen orcs waiting in the room, ready to attack anyone entering their fortress. They charge as soon as they see you. This is going to be a group simple contest—if you succeed, you slay or capture the orcs. If you fail, the orcs overwhelm you and take you prisoner so that you can be sacrificed to their god later.

Player1: I use my “Fight with sword & shield” ability and leap into combat.

Player2: I use my “Master archer” ability to stand back and pepper them with arrows from my longbow.

Player3: I use my “Arcane spellcaster” keyword to cast my sleep spell on them.

[After the dice rolling is complete, the GM tallies the scores and narrates the result.]

GM: Okay, the fighter cut down two of the orcs, the ranger filled a couple more with arrows, and the sleep spell dropped the last couple. You can decide whether the wounded orcs are dead or only incapacitated, and of course the sleeping orcs are at your mercy. Oh, since you rolled a critical on your “Arcane Spellcaster” check, you don’t need to mark off the sleep spell.

As you can see, there just isn’t any reason to need all those other details that are necessary in D&D or Pathfinder, because HQ abstracts all that into the nature of a contest.

So here are a list of many 0-level spells in the Pathfinder SRD, with a one- or two-sentence description that could be used for HQ.

  • Acid Splash: You fire a small orb of acid at the target, up to the distance you could throw a baseball-sized object, that burns the target before disappearing.
  • Arcane Mark: This spell allows you to inscribe your personal rune or mark—which can consist of no more than six characters—on an object. The writing can be visible or invisible, though certain spells (e.g. detect magic) will reveal it.
  • Dancing Lights: You create up to four lights that resemble lanterns or torches (and cast that amount of light), which you can control as long as the lights remain within your sight.
  • Daze:  This spell clouds the mind of a humanoid creature so that it is unable to take action.
  • Detect Magic: This spells allows you to detect all active spells and magic items as long as it is close enough to see it unaided. A Major or Complete success tells you specific details about the magic you detect.
  • Detect Poison: This spell allows you to detect whether a creature, object or area that is close enough for you to see it unaided has been poisoned or is poisonous. A Major or Complete success tells you specific details about the poison.
  • Disrupt Undead: You direct a ray of positive energy from your pointing finger to strike an undead target within close range, dealing damage to it.
  • Flare: This spell creates a burst of light in front of a creature, blinding it temporarily—though it is of no effect against sightless creatures.
  • Ghost Sound: This spell allows you to create a volume of simple sound that rises, recedes, approaches, or remains at a fixed place. You choose what type of sound ghost sound creates when casting it and cannot thereafter change the sound’s basic character.
  • Haunted Fey Aspect: You surround yourself with disturbing illusions, making you look and sound like a bizarre, insane fey creature.
  • Light: This spell causes a touched object to glow like a torch, shedding normal light in a 20-foot radius from the point touched.
  • Mage Hand: You point your finger at an object up to 5 lbs. in weight and can lift it and move it at will within a short distance.
  • Mending: You can repair any broken item—magical items face higher Resistance—up to the size and weight of your own body, as long as all the pieces are present.
  • Message: You can point to up to three creatures you can see with your naked eye and whisper a message that they will hear clearly (though language may still be a barrier). The recipients may whisper a reply that you can hear.
  • Open/Close: You can open or close (your choice) a door, chest, box, window, bag, pouch, bottle, barrel, or other container up to 30 lbs. in weight. If anything resists this activity (such as a bar on a door or a lock on a chest), the spell fails.
  • Ray of Frost: A ray of freezing air and ice projects from your pointing finger to strike a target within close range, dealing damage to it.
  • Read Magic: You can decipher magical inscriptions on objects—books, scrolls, weapons, and the like—that would otherwise be unintelligible. This deciphering does not normally invoke the magic contained in the writing, although it may do so in the case of a cursed or trapped scroll.
  • Resistance: This spells provides an augment on the next ability used to resist any magical attacks or effects.
  • Spark: You can make an unattended flammable object catch on fire as if you were using flint and steel, except that it works in any sort of weather.
  • Touch of Fatigue: You channel negative energy through your touch, causing the target to become extremely fatigued.

As you can see, some spells—such as daze and flare—can both be used as an attack on a creature in a contest, but whether or not it works depends on the target being affected. For example, it would make sense to rule that daze won’t work on mindless undead, and flare won’t affect a sightless creature. But in all other ways, they are attack spells that could be used in either a Simple or Extended contest. The actual effect, however, is purely narrative.


I’ll talk a bit about clerics (and probably magic items) next week, which will most likely be the last of my posts about HeroQuest and D&D. From there, I’m planning to discuss using HeroQuest for some other kinds of games to show off the versatility of this great set of rules.

6 thoughts on “HeroQuest and D&D – What About Magic?

  1. Great to see some be so thorough in their research when writing an article and for it to be detailed but not too slow to get through. I am honestly still digging into Hero Quest and will be sure to see the other things you will have to write about it as I am a GM myself but have stuck with Pathfinder.

    Have a great week and check out our page if ya got a minute and looking for a podcast or something different.


  2. Hi,
    I have not fully read your article, but I am sure its going to help. From a Glorantha point of view, myself and my one player group are totally noobs to the setting. We like the feel of HQ/G but not having any knowledge of the setting we are both unsure how to do magic in the setting. The book seems to assume you have played Runequest and have some prior knowledge. So we were put off, especially as magic is such an major part of the setting.

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